Just shy of ten years ago, 2K Czech released Mafia II; the follow-up to a 2002 Illusion Softworks game that was somewhat revered when it hit Xbox, PlayStation 2 and PC. Although the sequel didn’t set the world on fire, those who played it seemed to like it, and reviews were also rather positive. Despite this, it seemed to be forgotten quickly. At least that was my impression, because I felt like I was the only person who ever brought it up, both in person and online.
I rented the original (Xbox 360) version back when it came out, and again once the downloadable content was released. Hell, I think I ended up renting it a few times, because I had a Blockbuster membership that allowed me to borrow as many games as I wanted to each month. This one quickly became a favourite, because it was one of the gems of the last generation. One of the more underappreciated ones.
Needless to say, it was music to my ears when 2K announced its plans to release Mafia II: Definitive Edition out of the blue. Not only that, but a trilogy, including a remake of the original game and a definitive version of Mafia III, which I reviewed on another website.
Mafia II was an interesting game, because it felt like you were playing through a movie. The campaign was very cinematic, and was aided by a great storyline that has remained memorable to this day. Plus, while its indoor environments and activities were limited, it used them well to make its city feel lived in.
Although most of the action took place in a fictional, New York and Boston inspired city called Empire Bay, that wasn’t the only location 2K Czech took us to. In fact, the campaign’s first playable chapter is set in Italy, during the tail end of World War II. There, we find main character Vito Scaletta in the middle of an attempt to take out high ranking targets. He and his parachute division end up in the shit, so to speak, and have to shoot their way out of a very precarious set of circumstances.
After being wounded in action, Vito returns home to visit Empire Bay, USA, where he and his family emigrated to after leaving Italy a decade or so prior. He returns to find that his mother and sister are living in fear, because the man who lent their late father money is threatening punishment if the family doesn’t pay $2000. It’s this situation, as well as a short catch-up visit with an old friend named Joe Barbaro, that sends us into the world of organized crime. Joe, you see, is a mid-level goon for one of the city’s families, and is able to use his connections to make Vito’s visit home permanent.
Thanks to his friend’s good word, Vito quickly becomes a respected goon for the family. He’s given pretty high stakes jobs from the start, and those set the foundation for a campaign that is full of interesting quests, situations and relationships. One that spans approximately fourteen chapters and almost never feels like a chore.
What’s neat about this game is that it isn’t afraid to change. The story doesn’t just take place during one time period, so although it starts in the mid-40s, its second half picks up in the 50s. When that happens, Vito enters a world he doesn’t recognize. One that has changed quite a bit while he’s been away from it for a reason I won’t spoil. This change isn’t just voiced or talked about either. The open world becomes more modern as it enters the new decade, with payphones on sidewalks, newer cars on the streets, rock and roll music blaring out of windows and people sporting new clothing and hairstyles. It’s an interesting transformation, and is something you don’t normally see in games of this ilk. This one is very, very story driven though, and all of the above just adds to its cinematic charm.
Vito also feels real, even though he doesn’t always say a ton. So, too, does the world around him. Credit is due to the writers, all of whom did a good job here. As much as I enjoy the gameplay and the world building, the story is the star of this interactive period piece.
The missions are almost always quite interesting, challenging and entertaining, especially if you choose to play on hard, which isn’t overbearingly difficult. You’ll break into a government building to steal gasoline stamps (rations), then try to sell them. Another time you’ll dispose of a body while dealing with a couple of drunk friends. Hell, you’ll also enter into staged fights as part of a crew. That’s in addition to things like hits, vehicle thefts, and other quests for certain members of the Empire Bay underworld. Some are timed but most aren’t.
One particularly memorable hit involves borrowing a heavy German machine gun, staking out a business and then trying to open fire on the owner when he arrives. It quickly leads into an intense shootout inside of a distillery, while the building around you burns.
Everything feels lived in, and it truly does feel like you’re playing through a good mafia movie. Don’t go in expecting something similar to Grand Theft Auto IV or Grand Theft Auto V as a result. While Mafia II is a sandbox game with crime elements, it’s more structured and less open than an entry in that beloved series. All the while, it still allows you to explore a detailed city (during different seasons), drive tons of cars from different decades, and interact with the world around you. There are hidden wanted posters to find, stores to shop in, cars to soup up and even Playboy magazines to find. Yes, you read that right. There are, in fact, quite a few Playboys to find throughout Empire Bay, all of which can be looked at in the game’s main menu. I was surprised the first time I found one, because the retro issues lack censorship. They’re an interesting and unique video game collectible to say the least, and offer a look into a period gone by.
Most of all, though, the relationship between Vito and Joe truly stands the test of time. They’re both good characters, and while they’re pretty bad people they don’t always come off that way. Joe is funny, has a great personality and is fun to spend time with before, during and after missions. His expansion, which goes by the name of ‘Joe’s Adventure,’ is also well worth playing after you finish the main campaign. Like the rest of the game’s downloadable content, it’s included in the overall Mafia II: Definitive Edition package. It’s hard to recommend the other two add-ons, though, because both ‘The Betrayal of Jimmy’ and ‘Jimmy’s Vendetta’ were underwhelming. For whatever reason, they changed the gameplay, made things more ‘arcadey,’ and featured challenge-style missions with leaderboards. I remember being so excited to play them, but found both to be quite lacking. Thankfully Joe’s Adventure gave me more of the great Mafia II gameplay that I was itching for.
Needless to say, I’ve always liked this game and have never had a problem recommending it to people. I’ve never felt like it received enough recognition.
When I downloaded Mafia II: Definitive Edition, I was surprised by how large the install size was, because it comes in at approximately forty gigabytes. That’s big for a remaster, and told me that a lot of work was likely done to improve the aging experience. During my time with this remaster (which I’ve yet to beat, although I’ve spent a good number of hours inside of its city), I’ve noticed an improved lighting system, (some) updated character models and faces, and much more defined roadways. The snow has also been made more realistic, as have the rocks that surround some of the tunnels. It’s obvious that a good amount of effort went into making this thing feel and play more modern, even if it doesn’t exactly reach those heights.
Since release, there has been a lot of talk online about how this was a botched remaster, especially in comparison to Saints Row: The Third Remastered Edition. People have been quick to post on forums and upload videos to YouTube regarding the glitches, faults and issues they’ve discovered while playing. After seeing those, I half wondered if we were playing different games.
Although my time with Mafia II: Definitive Edition hasn’t been perfect, it’s never seemed anywhere close to severely flawed or broken. As is almost always the case with sandbox games, I’ve experienced a couple of glitches, but nothing that I would ever call major. The worst thing I’ve encountered was an enemy who got stuck in a wall. Whether that is a major bug is up to interpretation, I guess, but in my mind it’s not. It did, however, make me wonder if I had hit a progression blocking issue.
There’s a mission where Vito and Joe take to a mall’s rooftop to get away from chasing policemen. The goal is to take the cops out while Joe picks locks, then follow him onto the roof, at which point at least one more cop will come after you. Joe then takes to an icy ledge and slowly walks across it to get away, telling Vito to follow as soon as possible.
When you first get to the ledge, a cutscene starts. It’s at this point you’re shown that another cop has followed you out onto the roof. Vito ducks behind cover and prepares for a shootout with this armed civil servant, while Joe continues his escape attempt. It sounds simple enough. The thing is: After I killed that cop and went to the ledge, it wouldn’t let me get on it with my ally. I reloaded the last checkpoint a couple of times, but couldn’t get the escape cutscene to trigger. It wasn’t until the third attempt that I noticed two cops had come out of the door and killed them. Even then it wouldn’t let me proceed, so I decided to check my objectives, and sure enough it still said to take out the cops. Following that, I went back into the stairwell and saw that one officer had gotten stuck in the wall on the previous landing. I killed him and everything was fine.
That’s the worst glitch I’ve encountered in several hours with this game, and I’ve completed more than half of its campaign. For this reason, I’m kind of shocked by all of the videos and hateful comments I’m seeing online.
Since I’ve already completed the main campaign and all of its story add-ons, to almost 100%, I didn’t feel the need to fully complete it all again before reviewing this remaster. I’ve spent a good amount of time with it, though, and am actually pretty impressed, which doesn’t line up with the thoughts of some others. I do, however, plan to finish it at my leisure once I tidy up my proverbial plate. There’s quite a bit on it right now.
What’s funny is that my experiences with both Mafia II: Definitive Edition and Saints Row: The Third Remastered Edition have been different from that of some others. Mafia II is being shat on for being a poor update, but I haven’t had many problems with it, although some of its character models and textures could’ve used some added work. On the flip side, Saints Row is being lauded for being a great example of “how you remaster a game,” and I encountered several major glitches within my first few hours with it. Thankfully, those issues have all but disappeared since. It’s weird, though. Maybe most comments and complaints are stemming from other versions. I’ve been playing both on our Xbox One X.
As mentioned in the last paragraph, Mafia II: Definitive Edition isn’t everything it could’ve been. Some textures have seen impressive upgrades, such as roadways, buildings (interiors and exteriors) and the rocks that surround tunnels, which were once flat but are now much more pronounced and realistic looking. However, certain character models still look like they’re stuck in 2010 or even prior to that. This was especially evident when I took part in a fighting ring at the prison. A couple of the characters who challenged me looked as if they hadn’t been touched up at all, despite them appearing in at least one cutscene.
I’ll be the first to admit that this game was never perfect. It had some rough edges that still exist today, and was more linear than most of its peers, which is something that may turn the Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row crowds off. Still, it was easy to overlook any of its (mostly minor) deficiencies because the story was so great and the resulting missions were so interesting. The cars may sometimes feel like boats, but that could also be indicative of the era.
The voice acting is excellent, though, and the selection of period specific music is great. It truly feels like you’ve stepped back in time into the 1940s and 50s, and the radio is a big part of that. So, too, are the characters’ voices, looks and mannerisms, not to mention the slang they use. The voice cast did a great job of making their characters feel real, and the writing allowed them to feel human. They may be flawed, but they’re not all bad. Not all of them at least.
There are so many little details and nice touches to be found in Mafia II that it’s hard not to love it, even if it’s not the most varied game. Its world feels alive, its characters feel real, and it moves along at a good pace that quickly sucks you in. Furthermore, its police actually do their jobs. If they see you speeding they’ll put their lights on and try to pull you over, at which point you can stop and pay a $50 fine or opt to take off. This is also true of hit and runs, and feels more realistic than what you get in Grand Theft Auto. If you’re smart, you’ll make good use of the speed limiter, which can be toggled on by pressing A (or likely X on PS4). This makes it so that you can’t speed, and is good to turn on when you’re moving sensitive or illegal cargo past cops.
Also make sure to think before you steal a car. There are two methods one can use to do this: smashing the window, which makes it obvious that you’re a car thief, or picking the locks using a neat and accessible mini-game.
If you’ve never played this game before, and haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing its great story and interesting characters, then you should check out Mafia II: Definitive Edition. It’s not perfect, and is a bit rough around the edges, but it’s better than it’s been receiving credit for being, at least in my experience. However, if you’ve recently played the original version through PlayStation Plus or Games With Gold, you may want to wait and pick it up at a later date, or simply pass. Keep in mind that you can also purchase The Mafia Trilogy, which includes this remaster as well as Mafia III: Definitive Edition and the soon-to-be-released remake of the original game. It’s scheduled for August.
This review is based on the Xbox One X version of this game, which we were provided with.